Excellence in Action
Sahil Punamia ’13
Interviewed by Monique Beals • May 4, 2018
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
Someone much wiser than me once said that you can only connect the dots looking backwards. It might seem like I thoughtfully engineered my career path, but it has been much more about getting to know myself as a person and what my true aspirations were.
My first job in college was being one of the first gelato scoopers at Café 1919. Nothing prepares you more for the real world than having to serve coffee to a line of college students during finals week. Along the way, I tried many different things ranging from sales and marketing to private equity, and through those experiences I quickly learned that I wanted to be in the world of business. I looked to student groups to really try to inform that, so I joined and led Bruin Consulting and the Undergraduate Business Society. I eventually started to explore consulting as a clear opportunity, and by that point around my junior year, I had already worked in private equity and fell in love with strategy and helping others frame and solve their toughest problems. I got an internship at a company called LEK Consulting which is based in Westwood and began my career there as a strategy consultant. That was probably one of the most amazing professional experiences I have ever had. It was sort of like a finishing school for business professionals where they taught me much of what I use today in terms of strategic thinking and analytical problem solving.
From there, I knew that I wanted to get into entertainment after helping several clients in the media space, and that is when the opportunity at Discovery presented itself. I spent a year and a half working on a mix of social media strategy, digital content strategy, thinking about direct to consumer opportunities, and most recently, leading the digital integration of Scripps and Discovery (Scripps being the home of HGTV and the Food Network). Right around that time, I was thinking about where I wanted to take my career, and in my work at Discovery, I always thought about how the leading streaming service was tackling the world of internet television. That curiosity is what ultimately led me to Netflix.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I think it just comes down to me being a fan of good content. I also studied film at UCLA through the minor program, and it really gave me an appreciation for entertainment through the historical context of the industry and living in LA. The interesting part of it from an academic standpoint is how fast things are changing in the industry, and it makes it much more powerful to see that from a business perspective especially since I love sitting at the intersection of the business and creative (a phrase I promise to use only once during this interview).
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
Well, I actually never got into UCLA initially. I applied in high school and didn’t get in, and after I submitted an appeal audition for the marching band, the music director, Gordon Henderson, saw the audition and brought me into the school. So, I kind of got in through the back door, and the reason I mention that is because initially, it was hard to overcome being on campus surrounded by 30,000 other students who, on paper, were more academically qualified and likely to succeed. For me, if we talk about the UCLA experience, what that means is really harnessing peer to peer learning and going from the mentality of “Oh no, I have to compete with all these students.” to “I get to be surrounded by these incredibly talented people, and maybe I can learn from them and work with them towards a common goal.” That is where a lot of my appreciation for peer to peer learning came into play. So, peer to peer learning is number one, and that really helped me out. And that’s something I leverage to this day at Netflix.
Also, the diversity of thought and people at UCLA were invaluable. To illustrate, a few friends and I founded Sigma Eta Pi, which is the West Coast’s first entrepreneurship fraternity. That was very unique for a professional fraternity, because typically, professional fraternities were in law or business or medicine and brought together people and majors from one or two parts of campus. Sigma Eta Pi really brought people from every part of campus together. It was fun to be in those weekly meetings and work on things together and now, as an alumnus, it has grown far beyond UCLA. I think that diversity, particularly diversity of thought, was a huge part of shaping who I am today and how I interact with people.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
I’ve had my fair share of coffee chats and reaching out to people on LinkedIn, but I think that sometimes a lot of students take “utilize” too literally. It is no surprise that UCLA has a great presence in the entertainment industry, so I often run into alumni in my day to day work and in going to industry events. I would say that sharing that alumni connection has helped facilitate relationship building and creating trust faster between the people I work with and that is an immensely valuable asset I have in my back pocket. I like to take more of a subtle approach to using the network. I’d say for alumni, many of you reading this article might understand where I am coming from when I say students have much more of a tactical need, and that is okay. As students, make use of the alumni network as much as you can, but just know the approach changes in the real world.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I would say adapting to change both personally and as someone in the entertainment industry. Personally, change has been a constant for me. At LEK, when I started out as a strategy consultant, I worked on over 35 different client engagements, which meant 35 new managers, 35 new teams, 35 new clients, and 35 new problems to solve; every engagement presented something new for me to grasp. That really taught me how to pivot and adapt constantly. At Discovery, we dealt with a lot of change as a corporate organization trying to shift a traditional media company to the world of digital streaming, and now at Netflix, we are leading the shift to internet viewing around the world. Things are changing in the entertainment world so quickly that ability to adapt and see two steps ahead is an even more crucial skill-set today than it has ever been.
So, I have turned a challenge into hopefully somewhat of a skillset. In terms of overcoming it, I don’t know that I would say I’m fully comfortable adapting to change. I don’t think anyone can say they are 100% comfortable with it, but it is more about being accepting of the situations and emotions it creates within you and getting used to that over time. That, in my opinion, is really the right way to think about being comfortable with change.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your industry?
Well, before doing this interview I read through the interview you did with a good friend of mine and someone I consider a mentor, Sunny Tripathy. I would highly encourage anyone who is interested in entertainment to read that interview and really internalize it, because what he has to say is absolutely correct. Whether you are looking to get in on the creative or business side of the industry, you need to be 100% all in. There are many easier industries for people to make a living in, so there has to be a compelling reason as to why you want to chase your aspiration in entertainment, and it must be one that supersedes the Hollywood image of red carpets, parties, and rubbing shoulders with celebrities.
For me, it took 15 hour days for years on end before you start to find your role in this town, and even that isn’t guaranteed and is always changing. Practically speaking, I think for students it is leveraging the alumni network to chat with as many people in the industry as you can to learn from them and understand the fundamental changes that are happening in the business and what that means for the future of your career. If you are a college student, you have 40 or 50 years ahead of you in terms of your career in entertainment. Knowing what is going on now will help you realize where it is going five years down the road, which will help shape the opportunities you decide to pursue.
In terms of alumni, even more so, reaching out to other alumni, attending industry events, and getting smart about the changes is so important. You need to leverage your past experiences and learn how to translate that into an industry that is going increasingly direct to consumer, increasingly online, and leveraging big data. These are all big trends that represent a radical shift going on in the industry and so look back at your own professional experience and figure out how to turn that into wisdom for the teams you’re going to work with.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
Aside from my entertainment career, I am also a career coach for college students, and I have a company called The Aspiring Professional where I coach students one on one. I am also a keynote speaker for universities, and most frequently speak at the UCLA Career Center. I serve on the board of the UCLA Young Alumni Professionals and was recently nominated for the board of the UCLA Alumni Association beginning in July 2018. I am very active in giving back to the community. It is something that I love doing, and I love helping students figure out their aspirations in life and acting on it in a very practical way.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
Again, it is the diversity of people and thought. A lot of people think of diversity as just the demographic trends, but it is also the way that people think. In the working world, you have to understand how people think about things and appreciate that everyone comes from a different background and different way of seeing of things. It helps you work in teams (especially globally), and really what makes me proud to be a Bruin is being cultivated and learning from that environment. During your four years at UCLA, you are constantly surrounded by that, and I think that is a great representation of how the real world works.
And finally, what’s next?
I only recently joined Netflix, so I am still working on understanding the lay of the land here, because it truly is a different world. It is so intriguing and such an amazing learning experience being on the inside of the cutting edge of streaming entertainment, especially when you’re at the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Other than that, I am hoping to grow my speaking career and coaching business, continue doing work with the university, and building out my relationships at UCLA and beyond to help the next generation of college students find and pursue their calling in life. That last part is something that is never going to go away for me, and is always something that I am looking to increasingly invest more time into. That is the legacy I hope to leave behind.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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